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The Origins of “Cuppa”

I’m no etymologist (one who specializes in determining the origin of words). I don’t even play one on TV. But sometimes I find it interesting to contemplate the origins of certain words. Like “cuppa.” I wouldn’t swear to it, but I don’t think the term isn’t used much in the United States. As for the British, they seem to use it quite often.

I don’t think you need to call on a word expert to get an idea of how cuppa came to be. It’s pretty apparent that it’s a shortened version of the words “cup” and “of.” Or, as Wiktionary puts it, it’s an “ellipsis with elision of cup of tea.”

As I began looking into the origins of this word, I was reminded that it’s also used in relation to coffee, a substance I have no experience with. So while it might be interesting to trace the origins of “cuppa joe,” relating to coffee, I’ll pass.

Webster’s online version agrees with my above-mentioned surmise, stating that cuppa is “chiefly British.” It also claims that its first known use was in 1934, which is later than I expected. Elaborating a bit further, a site that collects various “Britishisms” cites the Oxford English Dictionary‘s claim that cuppa first appears in the 1934 mystery novel A Man Lay Dead, by New Zealand-born author Ngaio Marsh. Interesting to note that a number of the commenters there take exception to the notion that cuppa is also used for coffee.

Let me stress once again that I claim no expertise as a word guy but I couldn’t help wondering if this word was really only about eight decades old, at least as it first appears in print. Far be it from me to quibble with such exalted icons of lexicography as Webster’s or the OED but I couldn’t help doing a bit of looking on my own. I didn’t find too much more but there were a few items worth mentioning

A reference to cuppa in the 1858 volume The Dictionary of Trade Products, Manufacturing, and Technical Terms describes it as “an Indian name for mat bags sold by the hundred.” Which is beside the point but kind of interesting. Along the same lines is A New Abridgment of Ainsworth’s Dictionary, from 1848, in which cuppa is described as “a butt, coul, vat, tun, or pipe of wine.” More to the point is an 1860 reference from Vanity Fair magazine that goes like this, “Hee procureth from ye landladie a cuppa of stronge tea.” Which is a point in favor of the notion that cuppa predates the 1934 reference.

But perhaps this will be a moot point eventually, if a recent article from the British press is any indication. The article reported on a variety of new slang terms of all types and claimed that when it comes to tea, “people are now more than likely to ask for ‘splosh’, ‘chupley’ or ‘blish’ when they fancy a cup of tea.” None of these exactly have a ring to them but I guess they’re better than slabby-gangaroot, a term for that icky ring of dried ketchup around the mouth of a ketchup bottle.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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One response to “The Origins of “Cuppa””

  1. I always thought “cuppa” was just slang and not a real word, but your article has taught me otherwise. Yeah, I never really hear it in the U.S. for tea, but only have seen that spelling online. Looks like it’s a British thing, although I don’t hang with a big tea crowd, so I could be out of the loop.

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